CASS LAKE, Minn. -- Windows are being framed, nails are being driven, and concrete is being poured on what will soon become a new trades building at Leech Lake Tribal College.

The building is being constructed almost entirely by carpentry and residential building students and was made possible by a $150,000 grant from the American Indian College Fund to help with student retention and persistence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project is titled “Giwaakaaigemin” -- “we build” in English -- and once completed, it will be a 40-foot by 100-foot learning space.

After receiving the grant in 2020, LLTC students worked on planning, designing, and going through the budgeting and permitting processes for the new building in the winter and spring semester.

The project broke ground in late May or early June, carpentry instructor Rocky Carpenter said, and should wrap up by the end of summer.

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Two students on a lift frame windows while their instructor, Rocky Carpenter, looks on at the job site on July 21, 2021, at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Two students on a lift frame windows while their instructor, Rocky Carpenter, looks on at the job site on July 21, 2021, at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Mother-daughter duo

On July 21, there were three pairs of students working together in different parts of the job site. Two pairs worked on the frame: one installed boards, the other cut windows, and the third made a door frame.

In Carpenter's class, students are paired up daily to work on various tasks, rotating every few days so that every student learns about different topics. In one pair, mother Annie Humphrey and daughter Geezis Humphrey worked together.

Annie was controlling a lift while Geezis was up in the air pounding nails into a board. The two smiled at each other and joked around throughout the morning, switching roles every once and a while.

Carpenter said the students are building “traditionally” meaning they aren’t using nail guns and were using string to frame window openings.

“We're hand framing everything. So it's kind of a traditional build,” Carpenter said. “We don't have a lot of nail guns and things, we're all hand nailing. That takes a little bit longer. But we want the students to do it that way because they're not always going to have access to the nailing guns. In order for them to do it themselves, we wanted to show them how to do it without,” she said.

The Humphreys both found themselves at LLTC after the pandemic left them unsure of the path forward.

Annie is a well-known singer-songwriter but found herself without gigs and performances with venues shuttered.

“I'm old and I already have a bachelor's degree and I am also a performing artist. During COVID, I lost income and gigs," she said. "A lot of people went through that. So I just thought I’d do something else. Geezis already had done a semester of framing and carpentry.”

Annie and Geezis Humphrey work on a lift on the job site on July 21, 2021, at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Annie and Geezis Humphrey work on a lift on the job site on July 21, 2021, at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Geezis added that she decided to enroll in LLTC after her cousin and brother had done the same. Neither knew much about construction at first, but soon found the hang of it.

“My first day, I was hooked. I love this program a lot. It gives me a purpose,” Geezis said. “I never thought of doing this in my entire life. And then I just signed up and I ended up really, really enjoying it. Now, I don't think I'll ever not do this.”

In the future, the two hope to work together with some additional family members to improve housing in Leech Lake.

“I'm going to get a general contractor's license,” Annie said. “We don't have any details yet, but we want to start weatherizing houses in the Leech Lake Nation. It would be a family thing actually, a women family thing.”

A large portion of the class working on the new building is made up of women, the pair pointed out. Of the six students working on Wednesday, four were women, and several of them were mothers.

Why the building is needed

The brand spanking new building will help house the students who created it. The idea came to be during the height of the pandemic when the trades programs at the tribal college were struggling because of the inability to hold in-person classes.

The students and instructors needed space to spread out. Now, they’ll have ample opportunity to do so.

“The premise of the grant and how we got the funding to do this was that we needed a large outdoor kind of space so that we could build small houses, and have workstations where everybody's socially distanced,” Carpenter said. "Because before we were all in the (existing) building and we could only fit so many people in there. With this one, with the social distance spaces, this whole side will be workstations and they're all like eight to 10 feet apart.”

Two students frame a door on the job site on July 21, 2021, at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Two students frame a door on the job site on July 21, 2021, at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

This will be the first new building at LLTC since the opening of the $2.7 million community Bezhigoogahbow Library in 2015, named after the LLTC founder and first President, Larry P. Aitken. The Leech Lake Tribal Council first established LLTC in July 1990.

Another benefit of the space is it will allow classes to work on large-scale projects no matter the weather.

Recently, Carpenter’s students built a small house. She said in the future, the new building will allow classes to build three small homes of the same size at a time within the building.

Carpenter said these students will likely have their pick of jobs when they graduate.

“They're recording what they've been doing. They'll have a little portfolio at the end,” she said. “However, they don't need it, because we are getting visits by companies -- there's just so much work right now, they won't have a problem getting hired.”

Fall classes at Leech Lake Tribal College begin Monday, August 30.